My family home in Apalit, Pampanga (Philippines)

It must’ve been the year 2000, a few months before my elementary graduation. I was sitting on my “study table,” a wooden contraption with shelves, drawers, a pull-out chair and a fold-out desk trying to figure out what poem to write for my school’s literary journal.

In my eleven year-old mind, I’ve written so much about trees and the “beauty of nature” that I was running out of topics to write. Writing poems about nature back then, was my one true forte. I grew up in a house surrounded by greenery: acacia, banana, tamarind, coconut, jackfruit, mango and bamboo trees dotted our fields, while a variety of santan and gumamela flowers crowded the stairs of our house, with tomato, bitter melon, chili, squash, calabash gourd, cucumber plants and other varieties filled the northern section of our garden. I had an orchard of poems.

I certainly didn’t want to write about love, because I knew I didn’t really know much of it, no matter how many love poems I’ve read. I’m not entirely sure how I was able to resolve that situation but it’s one of the earliest moments of my lifelong affair with poetry.

For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.

— Audre Lorde, Poetry is Not Luxury

These days, I don’t write much poetry although I still read a lot of it. There are so many poets whose work I swear by that I’ve dedicated parts of my body for these lines to be tatted on: Audre Lorde, Wislawa Szymborska, Hafiz, Adrienne Rich, Tomas Tranströmer, Ocean Luong, Nikky Finney, Lorena Barros, June Jordan, Danez Smith, Juan Miguel Severo, Warsan Shire, Saeed Jones.

I’ve also written so many posts on this blog about the work of beloved poets: The Inevitability of Ocean Vuong’s Poetry, Poems of a Half-Finished Heaven with Tomas Tranströmer and The Poetics and Physics of Hugot, with Juan Miguel Severo.

 

A page out of Juan Miguel Severo’s book, Habang Wala Pa Sila

I can remember most of the most memorable — beautiful and painful — moments of my life through poems with the likes of Cherríe Moraga’s The Welder and Warsan Shire’s For Women Who Are Difficult to Love. Everything in my life, it seems like, is punctuated by a poem.

April is National Poetry Month and I’ve been thinking about my relationship with poetry, although I don’t write much of it anymore. Some of the last poems I’ve written were back in 2014, written while riding jeepneys in the Philippines. I’ve also been featured in one of the earliest online poetry collections of Nayyirah Waheed, the very first installment of Salt on Tumblr. I read some of my poems at a Sugarcane reading event in Oakland, where I workshopped my poems with a bunch of amazing queer, women of color for months.

Maybe I’ll find my poetry groove back one of these days, but my love for reading poetry has never stopped.

There’s the writer, who is appealing to her unconscious, to her profound sense of unknowing. And then there’s the reader, who, as the poem comes into being, as I say, as one word puts itself after another, is trying to figure out what the impact of those words in that order might be from a position of knowing. Right? And it’s the negotiation between these two, the unknowing and the knowing, that, crudely put, would represent the positions of the writer and the reader. So if the first reader of the poem is the writer herself, in a strange way the poem is, indeed, only finished, only completely — becomes completely what it might be when that other person comes to it.

— Paul Muldoon, A Conversation with Verse

Here are a few of the poetry books I’m reading this month:

Tuwing Ikatlong Sabado compiled and edited by Juan Miguel Severo
(Amazon | Goodreads)

There Are More Beautiful Things than Beyonce by Morgan Parker
(Amazon | Indiebound)

Look: Poems by Solmaz Sharif
(Amazon | Indiebound)

Check out the Academy of American Poets’ 30 Ways of Celebrating #NaPoMo, listings and other events here. Write a poem, get a book of poetry for a loved one or read with me! Happy National Poetry Month!

A Lifelong Affair with Poetry

Poetry, Soul + Spirit, Sunday Spotlight

Writing to Live, Living to Write

Art + Creativity, Book Reviews, Writing

There was a time when I was seriously obsessed with the lives of writers: I read accounts of how they spent their time, I did a lot of research to find out who their influences were and I swore to see every documentary there is detailing their lives.

I wanted to know everything about them and all of that was just me being extra, because I wanted to get the secret formula of how to be a legit writer.

writers

By: Wendy McNaughton

And then I came across this:

There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.

— Somerset Maugham

That, along with reading more books made me realize that really, you just have to do it.

But then there’s the idealistic + romantic side of me which yearns to have days like this, five out of seven: wake up and meditate, sip coffee while writing my morning pages, transition to “real writing” (whatever that means), walk + run + be outside, have a decent lunch, edit in the afternoon, see friends/be social in the evening.

But I’m not Marcel Proust, as much as I love him, because I did not grow up rich therefore I have to worry about feeding and supporting myself. Which is where Manjula Martin’s book comes in handy — Scratch: Writers, Money and the Art of Making a Living (Amazon | Indie Bound) — as I try to make sense of what it means to be a writer, beyond the writing part.

Scratch is a collection of essays and interviews edited by Martin, a different kind of a backstage pass on how writers “make it.” And when I say “make it,” I don’t just mean once they’ve been published, but how they manage their day-to-day existence. Like, how do they pay their bills? Do they go on vacations? Do they have enough food?

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By James Gulliver Hancock

What I love about this book is that the writers take us further deeper — the struggle of physiologically, mentally, emotionally supporting themselves while bravely and painstakingly committing pen to paper.

We Won’t Back Down, No

Sunday Spotlight

It’s been a little over a week since Trump won the presidential election and what gives me hope these days is the rising resistance against a fascist regime.

As a queer Filipino immigrant, I feel the fear in my chest. While waiting for his victory speech early Wednesday morning, the sight of white millennials in the crowd cheering and smiling with their red “Make America Great Again” caps made me cower.

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Around the country, people are taking to the streets to show their collective power against what a Trump presidency will look like. The rise of hate crimes against people of color and immigrants since he won is a manifestation of the Trump brand: a toxic concoction of white supremacy, racism, xenophobia, misogyny and hyper-capitalism.

In San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland, people filled the streets — thousands deep — to denounce his presidency. The next day, thousands of high school students in San Francisco walked out chanting “Not my President!” It is anger, it is rage, a fury unfurling itself and it demands to be seen, heard and felt.

Many organizations, both grassroots and nonprofit, have come out against Trump, have compiled resources for the most vulnerable of our population, have affirmed their commitment to uplift the voices of those that Trump aims to silence. GABRIELA, a Filipino women’s organization that I’m a part of, calls on people of the U.S. to intensify its mass movements and defend the democratic rights of the most disempowered people. The Black Lives Matter movement also released a statement, calling for a reckoning of the country’s inherent anti-blackness and to operate from “a place of love for our people and a deep yearning for real freedom.”

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Writers have also spoken out, indignant at the thought of fascism and the delusion that many have started to buy into. Teju Cole wrote a piece on The New York Times where he referenced Eugène Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros,” a play about mob mentality, conformity first created as a response to fascism during World War II. Sixteen writers from The New Yorker also wrote about Trump’s America post-election, which include essays from Junot Díaz and Toni Morrison.

At last night’s National Book Awards Ceremony, the mood was somber. I was particularly moved by Terrance Hayes’s speech, who quoted Elizabeth Bishop: “Poetry is a way of thinking with feelings — imagine 20 years of thinking with one’s feelings while someone is trying to kill you.” Colson Whitehead won the award for fiction with The Underground Railroad, of which I read and wrote about last month. PEN America published a few writers’ reflections on the results of the election with Walter Mosley penning: “the older we are, the more we live in the past.”

A few days ago, I started reading Paul Beatty’s The Sellout and my nose has been buried in these pages since then. His searing satire on race and popular culture couldn’t have been more timely — since the country appears to be rapidly regressing decades back and is looking to align itself with fascist regimes.

Where do we go from here? Perhaps a line from the International League of People’s Struggle statement can guide us:

“History shows us it is the parliament of the streets, not the parliament of the state, that determines change.”

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Dear President: Letters from Writers & Poets

Sunday Spotlight

I was on my way to grab a copy of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness when a magazine
so16_covercover arrested my attention — Teju Cole, on the Poets & Writers September/October 2016 issue. I walked out of Green Apple Books in San Francisco that evening with both the book and the magazine, tickled by my 1) discovery and 2) the fact that the guy who made me want to read Conrad in the first place was staring back at me from a magazine.

In addition to the wonderful feature on Teju written by Kevin Nance, I was enthralled to find a feature called Dear President: A Message for the Next Commander in Chief From Fifty American Poets and Writers wherein poets and writers offered their perspectives and longings on what the country needs. The prompt:

Imagine you are face-to-face with the next president—whoever that may be—and, in a few sentences, write about what you hope to see addressed in the next four years. It turns out something pretty great happens when you ask writers to convey, without a lot of political grandstanding, what is most important to them.

Here are a few of my favorites:

“There is no present or future without immigrants; white supremacy (and all of its sequelae) is one of the gravest threats to our democracy.”
Junot Díaz

“The occupation of Palestine by Israel—mass incarceration, presumption of guilt, withholding of resources, wanton destruction of human life, all underscored by the creation of physical barriers and the emotional propaganda of persecution, exclusion, mythmaking, and fear—are mirrored, one by one, in the policies of institutionalized racism in the United States. Unless we face this singular fact, and acknowledge our collective culpability as architects and sponsors of state terrorism here in our American cities, and in our foreign policy regarding Palestine (which is the bedrock of all other foreign policy), we will continue to be unable to fulfill the potential of our democracy for our people, and remain excoriated abroad for our impotence and hypocrisy.”
—Ru Freeman

“Your country is complex; it is hard to imagine a foreigner being able to fix it for you. Keep this in mind when you consider invading another nation.”
—Karan Mahajan

“There should be a new cabinet post—Secretary of the Arts. For the inaugural six poets: European, Hispanic, Asian American, African American, Native American, Muslim.”
—Ishmael Reed

“No language is neutral. To speak is to claim a life—and often our own. If more Americans speak to one another, in writing, in media, at the supermarket, we might listen better. It is difficult, I think, to hate one another when we start to understand not only why and how we hurt, but also why and how we love.”
Ocean Vuong

I admit, the presidential election makes me weary, tires me out. It is devoid of the hope and fire that once fueled me back in 2008, as a Green Card-holder who couldn’t even vote. I can’t blame my disinterest on either Trump or Clinton though, because how I view U.S. politics now is drastically different from how I understood things before. It amazes me that Trump has made it far in this election, spewing the kind of rhetoric his campaign of bigotry and hate has been built on. What Hillary stands for and what she’s done in the past makes me uneasy.

Both candidates, while representing extremes of the political spectrum, are still functioning in a system which can never assuage the intersection of my identities: working class, brown woman, immigrant, queer.

But these words, from “some of our most thoughtful and articulate citizens” (as P&W lovingly refers to them) give me hope. I’ve always looked up to writers and poets to create and envision the kind of world we need. As poet Ken Chen writes,

“America has often seen itself as a beacon of democracy, but the American project has always been about a settler project of inclusion and exclusion: democracy for those imagined as real Americans, and inequality for slaves, immigrants, black and brown bodies, and those who live in places the United States has colonized or destabilized, most recently Iraq and Libya. I hope that you can see yourself not just as a standard-bearer for a global economic elite, but as a force for equality and justice for all.”

But shoot, vote for what it’s worth.

Writers with Day Jobs

Sunday Spotlight


I’m finally reading J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Cursed Child; I couldn’t stay with Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life any longer as I eyed Rowling’s latest masterpiece scrupulously begging to be read. I’m slowly working my way through Yanagihara’s 800-page tome, but a few calculations here and there made me realize that I would need at least another 12 days to finish the book. I had to put the book down.

I dove right into the Rowling’s eighth book after nineteen years. The script format takes a little getting used to, but the story carries on. I still remember reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone when I was in elementary, awash in wonder and curiosity. Although I’m only on page 30, I have a renewed sense of giddiness and excitement.

In a The New Yorker article, contributor Jia Tolentino writes:

Without set decoration, it cleanly shows the moral imagination of the “Harry Potter” universe, in which goodness is circumstantial and endings are never guaranteed.

Finally,  a New Harry Potter Story Worth ReadingThe New Yorker

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From the series “Day Job” by Natalya Balnova

I came across Natalya Balnova series called “Day Job” which featured illustrations like the one above (more here). And then there’s this wonderful piece on ten writers who quit their day jobs: Arundhati Roy, Toni Morrison, John Green. As a writer and (a community organizer) with a day job (although my schedule also calls for night time flexibility), looking at these illustrations, reading the article give me infinite hope.

There were some sentiments that I echoed with from Virginia Woolf’s book A Room of One’s Own wherein she specified the types of conditions women needed to have in order to write. I think what she failed to say, beyond the material conditions she specified (400 pounds a year and one’s own room), is the kind of mental, social and psychological space women needed in order to write.

These days, when I hear of writers and that kind of luxurious space, I can’t help but think that what I’m wishing for is too bougie.

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From the series “Day Job” by Natalya Balnova

Class privilege has always been something I try to be aware of, although a lot of working-class writers have made it work. Perhaps creating that space does not even require leaving your day job, specially if it sustains your physiological needs.

While I’m in no position to leave my day job at the moment, what is important though is this: always make time for your writing.